Anyone walking into the Sawyer County Board meeting Thursday, March 19, would have noticed three supervisors seated in the audience benches instead of at the long conference table at which all 15 typically sit.
The supervisors present were practicing social distancing, staying at least six feet apart from one another. Three others were practicing the ultimate in social distancing by calling in via telephone.
It was noteworthy that, after hearing a presentation by Public Health Officer Julia Lyons about the COVID-19 measures, the county ratified a Public Health Emergency Declaration first issued March 13 by County Administrator Tom Hoff.
But over half the meeting was devoted to discussion of seeking a voter referendum in November to increase the county’s general operating levy.
Supervisor Bruce Paulsen, chair of the Finance Committee, said the county again is facing a nearly $1 million shortfall in revenue, but unlike prior years there is now less flexibility in the budget. One of the solutions under serious consideration is a referendum to asking voters to allow the county to increase property taxes.
The state currently limits the amount counties can raise its tax levy to a percentage of new construction values, which in Sawyer County works out to roughly $70,000 a year. Paulsen said his primary concern is addressing the county’s general operating budget, not the cost of operating a second court, which the state recently allowed in the year 2023.
County Administrator Tom Hoff repeatedly has said the new court could cost an additional $400,000 to operate, but Paulsen suggested the actual cost might be closer to $200,000,
However, the idea to pursue a referendum first was proposed by Supervisor Ron Buckholtz at a Public Safety Committee meeting to address the cost of running a second court. The committee passed the motion.
So at Thursday’s meeting of the full County Board, supervisors agreed to “proceed with analysis of the process of setting referendum to exceed levy limit.”
Buckholtz stressed the need for voters to decide if they wanted to support the operating cost of a second court. However, it wasn’t clear whether the referendum analysis also would address the county’s anticipated shortfall of approximately $1 million in its general operating budget.
In other action, the board approved raising fees 15 percent it charges as an agent of the state for licensing programs, such as licensing for tourist rooming houses. The raise is intended to make the program revenue neutral.